The Other Safe Sex Conversation

How do you decide if you want to have sex with someone? Presumably you would choose someone you’re attracted to in some compelling way. Mutual interest on their part also seems to be a key ingredient. Once you’ve got those basics established, it’s time to get down and have some highly intimate conversation!

Not everyone talks about sex before diving in. Once the somatic energetic trance state of mutual pleasure and desire starts to take hold, “breaking the mood” to talk about sex can be awkward. What if you knew, however, that the quality of your sexual connection would be significantly heightened by stopping and talking first?

What kind of conversation am I talking about? It’s not just the standard safe sex conversation. By all means, have that conversation, and get some practice having it so it’s easy to initiate as a matter of course. But where things really get interesting (and intimate) is when you initiate the other safe sex conversation.

The other safe sex conversation starts with an obvious, and yet not-so-simple, question. Once you start asking it, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it. To hear the question, and get some basic instructions about how to have the other safe sex conversation, just click “play”!

View Video Transcript
The Other Safe Sex Conversation
Steve Bearman
February 4, 2014

Sex can be one of the greatest ways to enjoy being alive. But in the jungle of human relationships it can be difficult to decide just who it is that you want to share such intimacies with. In trying to determine the suitability and desirability of a perspective new sexual partner, there are at least three things that you probably want to keep in mind. The first is that there are certain things that you want to be able to share and exchange with this person, for instance, pleasure and intimacy. But there are other things that you probably know you don’t want to share and exchange with this new person and that’s where the standard safe sex conversation comes in. More about that in a second. The third thing, and in some ways the most important, is that there are some things you can’t yet know whether or not you want to share and exchange with that person. That’s why the "other" safe sex conversation is important. But first, for the standard safe sex conversation, because that forms the model for the other safe sex conversation. You probably know that with a new person you don’t want to share or exchange certain undesirable microorganisms. And the way to minimize the likelihood of this is to have a conversation that involves a series of questions, and the main question is, "Do you have any sexually transmitted infections or STI's, that you know about?" There’s a series of other questions that you can ask that help you decide how certain you are about the person’s knowledge of their own status. Like you might ask them, "Have you had any symptoms of STI's? Or have you had any of those symptoms lately? When was the last time you got tested? How often do you get tested? Do you have any other sexual partners, and what are your safe sex practices with them?" And so on. Some of these questions can also help you determine the likelihood of sharing and exchanging pregnancy producing, reproductive sex cells, which are also something most people don’t want to share with a new sexual partner. So that’s all pretty straightforward. Now, if you don’t have the standard safe sex conversation as a matter of course, please get some practice having it. Even get some practice just with friends. After you manage to ask those questions a few times, it becomes quite easy to do. It allows you to protect yourself and to protect this person you’re about to share this new level of intimacy with. It also makes you a more responsible member of the extended sexual communities that you enter into, anytime that you have sex with somebody new. That’s a pretty straightforward conversation because it’s about the sharing and exchanging of microorganisms and reproductive sex cells. But there’s something even more interesting here that is where the other safe sex conversation comes in. It’s about something you don’t yet know you want to share or exchange with this new person. That is the kind of meaning they give to sex. What does sex mean to them? To find that out, and to find out whether your meanings and their meanings are compatible, requires another safe sex conversation, which is just another series of questions, where the main question is, "What is going to mean to you if we have sex?" It’s a really great question to ask because it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where one person’s answer would be, "Well I wanna feel more bonded with you. Sex is a way to get bonded and get closer because I’m trying to decide whether I think you might be a good life partner for me and it’s possible that you might and I wanna make sure that I am sexually compatible with my life partner, so I want us to have this experience together but it’s really about deepening our relationship to see what kind of commitment we want to make." In the meanwhile, the other person would answer the question by saying, "God, sex doesn’t really mean that much to me at all. It’s really just a way of having fun and I hate it when people make such a big deal out of it." Now you can tell if one person has one meaning and the other person has the other meaning and they don’t have this conversation that afterwards, they’re going to get into a lot of trouble. If instead they have the conversation, and they both answer honestly, then they're able to catch each other’s meanings. And they can figure out, do they want to catch one another’s meaning? It's like catching a disease: you can catch a meaning and it’s not necessarily a meaning that you want to have. If you're that incompatible with somebody going in, you know that afterwards there are going to be some consequences, potentially disastrous ones. So, having the conversation allows you to decide whether you want to take that risk with somebody. On the other hand, if you find out that you both have very similar kinds of answers, then that can be very reassuring. It can allow something in you to relax that you didn’t even know was tense, so that you feel safer, more secure, more open, more able to be vulnerable going into a new sexual interaction. So it's really great to have the conversation. But it doesn’t end there. It’s not merely a matter of whether your meanings are opposed to one another or aligned with one another. People can have all kinds of meanings that you would never expect. And some of them you will find quite inspiring, and others you may find quite horrifying. You can learn from the experience, about whether this is somebody that you want to engage in sex with. You can also find out if there is something available for you by sharing their meanings that you wouldn't have known about in advance. So here are some kinds of answers someone might give, that you might or might not expect, to answer the question. One person might say, "Sex is for me is really just a way of getting to know people. Like, I just want to get to know you better, and it's a deep kind of way of getting to know each other, so we can figure out what the right relationship for us is afterwards. Which might mean having a sexual or romantic relationship, or that we just decide to be friends, or that we have a kind of family bond that’s different but that's not about sex. I really just want to get to know you this way. I think it's an interesting way to get to know people." Somebody else might say something like, "Sex for me is a spiritual practice. We have become so cut off, so divided from our connection with everything. And the kind of union and communion that happens in sex, I feel can bring us back into connection with the Universe, and it brings us closer to God. That’s what sex is for me, and it's a practice that I’m interested in engaging in with you." Someone else might say, "Well I am having sex right now in my life because I am working on my sexuality. I don’t want this to seem impersonal, but there’s some work I'm trying to do. I'm trying to free myself of sexual shame that I've been conditioned with. Or, I want to have some positive sexual experiences to override the negative sexual abuse that I've experienced in my past. Or maybe, I'm trying to explore what my sexual orientation really is and so I'm just exploring and experimenting and I'm hoping you would be wiling to experiment with me. I think some healing could happen in our relationship. I trust you to be somebody I can heal with." Somebody else, might say something like, "Sex is just another activity that friends can do together and I think we’re friends. I really enjoy our friendship, and we can play checkers right now, or we can go sailing, or we can have sex. Sex is just a really rich and interesting kind of activity to engage in with friends. I don’t think it changes whether or not we're friends, or what kind of relationship we have. It's just a part of our friendship. Somebody else might say something like, "If I have sex with you, it means that you've passed the test. I don’t feel that safe with many people. For me to be interested and engaging sexually with you means you passed the test and I feel that safe with you. So I'm assuming we're deepening into a much greater level of commitment by having sex with each other, because I'm finally being vulnerable with you in a way that I rarely am with anybody.” And there are many more kinds of meanings that somebody might give. In fact, somebody might say something like, "I'm really not that interested in sex with you. I'm not even particularly attracted to you, but I really love you, and I care about our connection. I can tell sex matters to you, so I kind of want to do it for you. I’m not really self-sacrificing. It's not that it will be bad for me. It's just that I'm really orienting toward you, and I wanna do it because it's something that you'll enjoy." Now, all of these are very different from one another. Some of them may be inspiring to you, like "Oh I want to try that one out." And some of them may be horrifying to you, like "Oh, I don’t want to go anywhere near that". But you'll know more about it if you have the conversation and then ask a further series of questions to know more about what that meaning means to them. Questions like, "Do you expect that we'll sleepover afterwards? What do you expect will happen tomorrow if we have sex today, or tonight? Is there an assumption about level of commitment? Is there an assumption about exclusivity, about not having sex with other people if we have sex with each other? Is there a kind of frequency that you're going to expect us to date or have sex with if we do have sex now and we both like it?" These are all kinds of things you would like to know in advance, and it allows you to make a conscious choice about what you’re going into. Calling any of these conversations "safe sex" conversations is kind of a funny thing to call them. It's not really about safety, although that is one component of what we are talking about. Really what they are is just sex conversations, and it's really good to have sex conversations. And the only reason we don’t have them a lot more, especially with new prospective partners, is because we've learned to carry so much shame about our sexualities and about the nature of sex. Having open, honest conversations about sex not only allows us to be safer and protect ourselves and each other, but it just allows us to get to know each other better and more deeply before entering into this kind of extraordinary intimacy with one another. If you can't have this kind of intimacy verbally and on the level of meanings, on the level of what's really true for you, on the level of honesty, then it's harder to have real intimacy when engaged physically with one another. If you can have this conversation in advance, sex is much better, it can go much deeper, much richer, and you can be more relaxed entering into the process, which allows you to be much more excited about it. So have the standard safe sex conversation, but also ask people, "What is going to mean to you if we have sex?"

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.